A flight into imagination


Gayatri Shantaram enjoys painting birds, writes hema Vijay, after a meeting with the young artist who finds inspiration for her art works in Indian folk and traditional art.

In art, as in life, sometimes, the most effective statements are the ones that go unstated. As in Gayatri Shantaram’s Fly, a brilliantly executed set of water colour, acrylic and ink works on handmade paper and linen.

In Fly, the untouched areas of the paper are just as delightful as the painted portions. Interspersed with dabs of pigment, a few delicate washes of colours that have been allowed to run or blot as dictated by the paper’s texture, and a few suggestive strokes in ink, Fly sparks off so much effect with so little intervention.

That is perhaps why these visuals make you connect to sensations of effortlessness; freedom, the magic of levitation, the world beyond the perceptible horizon, the inexplicable sense of liberation that wells up in us when we get to soar on a paraglide, and things like that.

Paris-based Gayatri Shantaram is a young artist who shows so much promise. With several well-received shows under her belt already, which include exhibitions at Galerie Metanoia and the Carrousel du Louvre at Paris and the Lalit Kala Akademy in Chennai, this is an artist to keep a close watch on. Her commissioned works such as for ITC, India and X-Audit, France have also been refreshingly less worked, rather than over worked.

The minimalist approach is probably what attracts her to Indian folk art. “Indian folk art and traditional art has always been a source of interest and much inspiration to me in terms of colour, form and technique. Another facet of art that has broadened my vision and changed my perspective is architecture and its influences on artistic movements,” she says.

In Fly, there are birds, and birds, and more birds, all over the frames. Some of the birds are clearly formed, some just suggested. Sometimes, the birds merge with the surroundings as if being formed from or being returned to nature. There are some hopping, some perched in serenity and some in flight; some in the distance and some up close; some in conversation, some solitary, and yet others lost in self-introspection or contemplation of the world around …well, these creatures might be people.

Avian fantasy

“As a matter of fact, to me, they are people. Each of these birds have their own characters, expressions and agenda,” Gayatri says, adding, “I do abstracts too, but most figurative things that I paint turn out to be creatures that live around us, such as cats and dogs, and most often, birds. I don’t know why, but it might be because I grew up with the company of a lot of birds, thanks to one of my friends whose family raised birds in their garden. Somehow, painting birds comes automatically to me, without thought.”

Recalls Dr Alamelu, her teacher at Stella Maris College, Chennai, “Gayatri had penciled birds even as a young girl… The Guinea fowls have always intrigued her because of their amusingly disproportionate forms with small heads and large bodies.”

There is the influence of the sea as well. Not just as a composite of the landscape that platform her birds, but also in terms of the colours that grow over her frames. Having grown up in a home by the sea on the scenic East Coast Road that winds from Chennai to Pondicherry must have had something to do with it. But now, Gayatri has found Paris a perfect place to live. “It is no myth. Paris has an atmosphere of art all over the place,” she says.

A casual frame

The choice of mounts has added spectacularly to Fly’s impact. Black mounts for the overwhelmingly white dominated paintings, white mounts for the subtly coloured ones that ebb with a moody trace of colours, and deep blue mounts for many others that recall the sea and the sky.

In some works, as with the tiny ones on linen that measure just 10x15 cm, the paintings are exposed to space, without the intermediary of a glass cover, which adds a textural impact to the visual one.

On the other hand, the large paintings are very large and span around 8x5 feet and aligned vertically at times, as in the case of a close perspective of birds, and in horizontal frames as in paintings that show these avian creatures flying far ahead in the horizon, reminiscent of Richard Bach’s unforgettable seagulls. However, the larger paintings are not nearly as impressive as her smaller works.

Some of the paintings have been done on paper with jagged borders, left so intentionally. Gayatri likes to work on the exquisite handmade recycled paper sourced from the Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry, as also on delicate rice paper.

There are a few heavily abstracted paintings, many of them coming smudged in plenty of black; there are also the amalgams of the figurative with abstracted backdrops. In some of the abstract works dominated by black ink flowing across the frame, a spot of brilliant red is just all it takes to spark off a suggestion of forms, or lines of thoughts, depending on the viewer’s intellectual disposition — visual and figurative or literary and musing.

There are paintings where the birds are not easily spotted in the frame, with their horizontal flying forms getting lost in the sweeping horizontal strokes that make up the skies.

These paintings underline a sense of the enormity of the world, and also of the worlds beyond that we know about. “There are two kinds of art that I do; abstract work with acrylic paints and figurative ones in water colours. In Fly, they come together — the figurative and the abstract elements.

I see it as the next level of my work; that is why I have called it fly,” mentions Gayatri, her sparkling eyes clashing with the streaks of premature grey in her hair, which she flaunts as confidently as many other women would flaunt coloured hair. “It is me. Why should I put on an act?” 

Sometimes, the paintings take a humorous turn, by contouring perspectives to bring the scarlet setting sun in close focus, with the birds seemingly pecking at the fiery structure or cradling it in between their wings.

In the same vein are the birds that morph into balloon like structures in their middle portion. Some of the smaller paintings come in split frames, in vertical or horizontal alignments suggesting a sense of progression. They signal a story weaved around the life and times of these soaring, free-wheeling creatures that we know as birds.

It is another matter altogether, what really goes on their minds. Ultimately, with Fly, it is not the species of the bird — their endangered or commonplace criteria, or even their visual splendour that catches the eye. Just their elusive worlds.

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